Spain will assume the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1. A week later, on Jan. 8, a gala ceremony will be held at Madrid's Teatro Real, with its velvet armchairs and gilded mouldings and the country's royal couple in attendance. Though the surroundings might be glamourous, the battered Spaniards will face enormous responsibilities in their new role -- and perhaps even ones that are too great.
Now that Europeans have finally put a rest to their squabbling over the Lisbon Treaty, it's time to implement the new body of laws it entails and for Europe to dispose itself in a new way. The EU now has a permanent president* of the European Council, Belgian politician Herman Van Rompuy, and a new foreign policy chief, British politician Catherine Ashton. Both have reputations for being able technocrats rather than polished diplomats. From now on, in accordance with the new reform treaty, they will chair important summit meetings in Brussels -- which means that Spain will be forced to assume a less prominent role.
Spain was very enthusiastic about assuming the EU presidency, and Diego Lopez Garrido, its secretary of state for EU affairs, even predicted in early December that Spain would enter the "Guinness book of summits." But it's hard to tell how much of that enthusiam remains. Now Spain intends to support the EU's new top brass. The country's new motto, as Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos announced before Christmas, will be coordination instead of competition. Madrid, Moratinos said, would assume a supporting role under Van Rompuy and perform its duties with "modesty and discretion," adding: "This is his show."
Still, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero could use a bit of foreign policy sparkle. He has been living through what is surely his most difficult year since assuming office in 2004. Since then, Zapatero has liberalized and transformed Spain's political culture using an approach that paid off in May, when he managed to secure a prestigious meeting with US President Barack Obama.
'The Drama of Unemployment'
For months, Spain has been groaning under the effects of the global economic crisis, which have only been amplified by the collapse of its real estate market. Twenty percent of the working-age population -- or over 4 million Spaniards -- are unemployed, which is almost twice as high as the European average. The only European country with a higher unemployment rate is Latvia. Likewise, Spain will likely be the last of the EU countries to emerge from the recession, and moderate growth is only expected to be seen beginning in 2011. On its Web site, the leading Spanish daily El País began its end-of-the-year review for 2009 with the words: "The Drama of Unemployment."
In surveys, 72 percent of respondents said that they had little or no confidence in Zapatero. The only saving grace for his weak government is the fact that the opposition is even weaker; 80 percent of survey respondents said that they had little or no confidence in Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the opposition conservative Popular Party (PP). The PP is deeply embroiled in a corruption scandal involving provincial politicians, who allegedly accepted bribes in the form of custom-made suits, luxury cars and expensive watches. But the PP is not alone, as charges of cronyism and money laundering have also been leveled at politicians from other parties in Spain's regions.
Moreover, discussions over whether to extend more rights of autonomy to the country's 17 regions has been getting more and more heated. In mid-December, the rebellious Catalans voted for independence, though the non-binding vote was only symbolic. Some Catalans have also embarked on a spirited fight for bilingual traffic signs. Needless to say, the central government in Madrid is not exactly popular at the moment.
Zapatero would seem to have his hands full with domestic challenges. Still, he has also set ambitious goals for the country's fourth term as president of the European Council. In addition to implementing the Lisbon Treaty, which is expected to bring "new energy" to Europe, Spain also has plans for an extensive foreign policy program. For example, although Madrid concedes that the necessary international negotiations will "not be easy," in 2010, it wants to revive the Middle East peace process and possibly even push for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Such plans could also get in the way of another project: strengthening the Mediterranean Union that France launched during its European Council presidency last year, which aims at improving political and economic cooperation among EU states, Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean and Israel.
Spain's other goals include fostering more dialogue between the EU and Cuba, expediting Croatia's EU membership and improving relations with Turkey, the last of which is a matter of particular concern to EU foreign policy chief Ashton.
Still, Spain's biggest challenges remain coping with the economic crisis -- both at home and within the EU. Spain favors a new growth model that emphasizes renewable energy.
With the Jan. 8 gala celebration in Madrid just around the corner, Spain's Interior Ministry was forced to raise its terror alert level. According to documents Spanish police seized from the Basque terrorist organization ETA, the organization was apparently preparing two major attacks during the country's term as European Council president. That's not exactly an auspicious beginning for Zapatero.
* Editor's note: The European Council President is a permanent post, but office-holders are elected to two and a half year terms.